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Fist Pumping at the Jersey Shore

April 10, 2010

What reality television blog would be complete without the show that has ignited such love and hatred since it started last year?

I watched it only intermittently. Maybe because I’m not Italian, don’t want to mock Italians and rarely to never engage in any aspect of  a GTL. But still, the show was a huge hit. Why? It’s not as though watching people cavort in hot tubs, binge drink and make dubious decisions is groundbreaking on in a television show. In fact it’s a hackneyed concept. But it’s now being spawned into a full-blown franchise, as the gang reunites for a second summer in Miami Beach, and spin-offs are now proliferating the web. Persian Version, Wicked Summah, another with Russians, Asians and even one with senior citizens

Part of it, I suspect, is rooted in the same “car crash” theory I think applies to Pretty Wild. But part of it taps into the segmented nature of society and identity. The show has been established as a modern-day representation of young Italian Americans. The cast members are primarily of Italian descent (the exceptions are Snooki, who was adopted by Italian parents but is in fact Chilean, JWOWW is actually Spanish and Italian, Ronnie is half Puerto Rican), the house is decked out in Italian flags, and red, white and green, mothers come visit, with a family army in tow, to bake ziti and clean.The show is set in New Jersey, strongly associated as having a thriving Italian population. They also fit the stereotype that abounds about young Italian-Americans today– muscled, tanned, coiffed party people. These are also people however who clean, they fit laundry into their daily schedule (GTL!), they love their mothers and their families. The aspects that people find unsavoury– the partying, the hot tub harems, the punching and being punched– have nothing to do with being Italian, but more to do with being young and stupid. Let’s face it, that distinction knows no cultural bounds.

People identify with them. Either because they are Italian, or they fit into the conception of what we think is Italian. There are plenty of people who aren’t happy about that. The National Italian American Foundation, UNICO National and Order Sons of Italy all criticised the show, calling it inaccurate, offensive, and demanded it should be cancelled. UNICO even planned legal action against MTV, so offended were they by the portrayal. Linda Stasi an Italian-American New York Post columnist said that the Jersey Shore is a show  “…in which Italian-Americans are stereotyped (clearly at the urging of its producer) into degrading and debasing themselves—and, by extension, all Italian-Americans—and furthering the popular TV notion that Italian-Americans are gel-haired, thuggish, ignoramuses with fake tans, no manners, no diction, no taste, no education, no sexual discretion, no hairdressers (for sure), no real knowledge of Italian culture and no ambition beyond expanding steroid-and silicone-enhanced bodies into sizes best suited for floating over Macy’s on Thanksgiving.”

Maybe this is true. But, as Pauly D said “I don’t represent all Guidos, I only represent myself”. The way the cast members act may be a stereotype of the Italian subculture, but the critics should keep in mind that they still are Italian-Americans. While it may not be representative of all Italian-Americans, it doesn’t mean it’s not accurate. It’s hard to say this isn’t the way Italian-Americans act when these people are Italian-American. It also doesn’t mean it has to be offensive, or negative. These people don’t act in stupid ways because of their background. They are Italian-Americans who act in stupid ways. The critics don’t seem to note the distinction. The Situation, with surprising clarity (in my humble opinion) says that “it’s not necessarily a stereotype, it’s just how it is. In New York and New Jersey, it happens to be the style”. That may not be the image and culture that UNICO et al want presented to the world, but it doesn’t mean there is no legitimacy to this aspect of their culture. No, not all Italian-Americans are like that. But some of them are .

The Jersey Shore house

 

They also objected to the use of the offensive terms, Guido and Guidette. I have no doubt that these were negative insults used back in the day. But times change, and people re-appropriate terms to have new meaning, and claim them as their own. You had that being done with certain words in the African-American culture. Guido was used, not by MTV, but by the cast members themselves. It no longer has that negative connotation, but is a proud statement, a claim to identity and culture that is free of its ugly roots for the younger generation.

At home we have what I like to call the neo-wog movement. Much like guido, or wop here in America, at home Italians or Greeks were called wogs, in an insulting and derogatory fashion. In the past 15 years there has been a shift in this. These cultures have reclaimed the word, and used it to identify themselves. Saying I’m a wog denotes your culture, your identity and pride in where you’re from. You can’t insult them based on where they are from, because they know where they are from, and are proud of it. Actors have even made a career out of it, with tv shows, comedy tours and movies. There are stereotypes that fit into this group too, that are pretty analogous with those on the Jersey Shore. But it doesn’t lessen their cultural ties and pride. 

Italy is also a country that intrigues us all. We eat the food, we go to Rome, we want the magic and romance of what Italy represents. A whole movie genre is practically built on the culture– A Room with a View, Under the Tuscan Sun, the new Letters to Juliet. Not all these presented stereotypes are true, and pidgeon-hole the culture. But they are positive. We see Italy in a certain way, but it encourages our enduring fascination. This is what continues to keep the international Italian pride alive, while many other cultures fall by the wayside. 

I’m not saying that what comes out of these shows, either through Jersey Shore, or in the neo-wog movement at home, isn’t a limiting view of a culture. But it also can be an opportunity to analyse the interactions of subcultures. It will be interesting to see how the cast do down in South Beach, known for it’s Spanish culture. Beneath all of that fake tan and hair gel, Snooki and the Situation are leading figures in an ongoing sociocultural debate.

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